The unconscious mind and the flight of appearances
Rabindranath and the romantic principle
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed,' he claims, 'everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.' Political states keep power by convincing us of our limitations. –Terry Eagleton, citing William Blake
If the models we use are the apparitions seen in a dream, or the recollection of our pre-historic past, is this less part of nature or realism, than a cow in a field? –Adolf Gottlieb
Away from enlightenment and anthropocentrism
At one point in his life, Rabindranath Tagore felt that 'art is a way for the human to attain completeness [of being]'; to buttress this concept with more meat we can always fall back on another quote culled from his conversation with Rani Chanda, which, in turn, makes clear the strong romantic urge for the creation of the 'other':
'What is present in front of the eyes is never sufficient. One must witness something out of the ordinary; together they form the whole.'
This romantic longing for 'transcendence' and 'otherness', which completes the circle of the 'whole', is the frame through which we may seek to fix a gaze, or a position before attempting to examine the most celebrated Bengali poet's visual output. But, at the same time, one must be vigilant of the fact that the idealist poet's art is a departure from the convention of idealism that was the guiding spirit of this Bengali literary giant.
If we write Rabindranath the visual artist off as an essentialist, we may miss the very idea, or call it the experiential core, that goes into building the brio linked to the language he constructed out of the vestiges of sense data. And one must also be aware that 'sense', tainted as it is with 'desire', is no reliable companion for one who seeks objective knowledge. Therefore, when Rabindranath desires to unwind the narrative construction of the monolithic, overbearing and taste-defining pronoun 'I', one which presides over his consciousness throughout his life as a literary giant, he yokes together modes of iratibility (trafficked in performativity to poetic ends) with the search for the whole in relation to his self-other and reality-imagination agreement. And he did so on an unconscious level by tearing down the boundaries imposed by the zeitgeist to emerge as a bold, hyperactive personality given to non-hierarchical, non-anthropocentric tendencies.
By disrupting the paradigm of the noble (which is brought forth by condensing the quotidian), and by toppling the creed that sees artistic expression as literal/linear interpretation of reality, Rabindranath's art takes a detour and invades every emotional nook – including the irrational ones – of the mind putting to test the vitality of a fragmentary idiom, though never renouncing the hope of visualizing the 'whole'. The cyclical framework of such romanticism was made up of the continuous back and forth between fragments and whole.
His art picks up on what is generally considered mundane as subject matters and puts forward outwardly raffish, but potentially poetic expressions derived from impassioned encounters with physical reality which often gave rise to visions.
By abandoning the garb of grandeur and nobility, Rabindranath – the myth of a man – comes undone in his art to be in sync with his authentic voice (if there is such a thing, especially, in the context of the 'opacity of the subject to itself, the limits of self-knowledge', as is transmitted by Judith Butler). Artist Rabindranath was ready to be saturated in the entirety of the experience of existence. Withholding the 'grammatical “I”' to give shape to the visions that appeared, through the mental and physical processes, Rabindranath simply left a trail of intimate moments of awakening. In short, at the end part of his life, Rabindranath the artist assumed a performative character.
It helped him conceive the works of art as a means for one to scour the whole – the esoteric or inner and the exoteric or outer world – thus, providing a metaphysical foundation for what may appear as physically derived. And it happens via, what one may call, automatism, to borrow the most useful trope coined by the Surrealists.
The author who used to moralize was no longer to be found amidst the pervasive enthusiasm to demonstrate the essential element of life – poetic imagination. With the authorship reorganized/rethought, Rabindranath the artist also starts acting, for the first time, like an iconoclast. The iconicity and authorial control which apparently shaped a greater part of his literary career was now challenged in the face of his imagery – where the experiential and the imaginary collide and defuse into one.
With many a work, one finds him in a strong absurdist element; at other times, he seems perfectly entrenched in an erotic state of pleasure/anxiety of being, simultaneously engaging the self in myriad ways of becoming through shifts in position and a staccato line of expressivity.
The inauguration of the Modern
Because his expressions were in variance with the norms, his works spawned analysis that reads into them the pathologies of the Modern World. While facing Rabindranath's arts, the hectic search for the signs of neurosis reflective of the Modern Age (or call it the 'time out of joint') seems futile. Though 'the fragmentation of the individual' makes its appearance through his art, the thrust was towards 'unheralded innovation'. His was a vanguardist ideal that was born out of his fear of the banal that passed off as good art, rather than critical engagement with his time and the world.
One finds no reaction to the crisis with civilizational implication, nor any direct response to the progressive mechanization considerably impacting the human-nature bond. Instead, his language of art seems like a creation of otherness – a space/plane where the primitive imperatives hold sway over the civilized, domesticated denizens' aspirations marked by the sharp rationalizing mind that, by the virtue of its civilizing mission, cuts the selves loose from history and the collective force whose repository is traditional culture. Rabindranath's art negates the Modern Machine Age as do most European Modern art of the early twentieth century, and it also serves as a location to launch the process of reckoning to defuse the alienation modernism has sparked, but it never directly engages with the 'consensus reality', nor does it interrogate it.
Put in the context of his textual piece entitled Crisis in Civilization (the English version of Shabhyatar Shankat), written based on the last public address delivered on 14 April, 1941, where he seriously contemplates, for the first time, the West and its unjust order, his art seems to predate his newly acquired mindset. Intellectually, his revision in evaluating the West did not take him far from the concepts of assimilation, syncretism and humanism – tropes that shares discursive ground with Western liberal humanism. '[H]e genuinely felt that the Indian self would be enhanced by embracing the British virtues, an opinion that he retained even in his last writings like “Crisis in Civilization,”' writes Amrit Sen in a tract on his art and literature, aptly capturing the drift of his mind that never completely renounce the West for other alternatives.
Therefore, for him, the process of art-making served primarily to bring forth a series of counterpoints to all other arts that acquired the status of Indian art and also his own literary and intellectual position.
Though he assimilated many a style and had always been open to influences – his work bespoke a return to a newly inaugurated formative order reached through a perfomative, primordial 'self' – one which received constant battering from the civilizing/modernizing enterprise of the colonizer. One who always believed in 'universality', a qualifying category that enforced the Western paradigm on the body and mind of the colonized, at last paved the way for 'transversal' tendencies. The endogeneity/exogeneity duality, that had seen their assimilation in his literary world by way of the borrowed idea of the 'universal form' of novel and story, had been altogether forgotten in his art. With artistic expression, he was free of any such dualities and boldly traversed paths that emerged in the wake of the omission of the normative values he once was attached to.
If the reference to the West in his literary works – in lieu of the naturalistic literary method he employed – was obvious, in art it became, at times, rather tacit. And at others, perplexingly complex as his invoking of the arts he admired never followed a single line of negotiation. Like his Western counterparts, he was fascinated by the arts from civilizations as varied as Japan, Aztec and the Pacific islands. Around the time of the mid-nineteenth century, the primordial or primitive modes of expression caught the imagination of the 'creative' West after they were able to set aside the prejudices of the 'thinking' and 'dominating' West, and it also impacted the poet all set, in the mid-1920's, to explore the uncharted visual terrain.
Through his transgression on the domain of 'Indian art', the artist Rabindranath challenged the very notion of Indian-ness semioticized through the artistic actions of most local artists. Set by Abanindranath Tagore, his nephew – one of the early-twentieth century icons of the art scene, with the pious patronage of and intellectual underpinnings from E B Havel, the nationalist, or the architect of Indianization project, launched in the early years of the twentieth century, could initially secure Rabindranath's approval and praise. However, by the time he took up art as seriously as any other artists of his time formulating expressive dialogues in visual dictions, in the mid-1920s, his detachment from Havel-Abanindranath's totalizing project was complete. Though there are works that predates his now famous Purabi manuscript, worked on in 1924, during his three-month-long hiatus in Argentina, when Victoria Ocampo, his host, famously pointed out the merit of his artistic effort to him and egged on his passion for creativity; this certainly was the time of a new beginning.
While most artists were engaged in constructing an identity through the nationalist frame, as the early twentieth century India remained bogged down in the notion of art that was obligingly representative of the past heritage, Rabindranath was stretching his mind beyond his corporeal position – especially, to break the uniformity of the present and to freight his oeuvre to the future.
If at the other end of the spectrum most were inspired by the ascriptive identity that emerged through a few ideal models, Rabindranath was already stationed at a 'timeless' zone – a location of imaginary construct where the poetic was invoked through the impressions of the natural surroundings of Santiniketan. Again, in respect of location, the imaginary came together with the real.
By the time Rabindranth started operating from within the art scene to overwrite its existing languages, several major players already forfeited the right to be called Modern. Rabindranath, on the other hand, had always nurtured an affinity to be in consort with the European modernists, as is evident in his effort to construct free-verse during the early 1930s (his lecture on the subject at the Calcutta University tells us that his efforts were inspired by Walt Whitman).
Though, his thrust was towards breaking the barriers with formal and conceptual experimentations, and as result his late poetic efforts failed to deposit much substance onto the very bed upon which the edifices of late poems were propped up. On the contrary, with his artistic expressions, he came off as an innovator, dealing quite a blow to the established notions of art and Indianness. While others attempted to conflate the idea of creation with an Indian brand of 'identity politics', as in the case of the revivalists who enshrined certain Mughal and Rajput representational methods in their works, Rabindranath created an entirely new corpus to judge Indian art by. Through his art, the poet turned artist demonstrated that Identity was as fluid as our position vis-à-vis physical reality. His techniques, no matter how derivative they were, apparently sought to revitalize the space of praxis by the idea of open-endedness and the continuity of creation.
The plunge into the unconscious
As is reflected by Abanindranath, Rabindranath's outpouring of creativity was like a volcanic eruption – spanning the years from 1928 till his death in 1941. Prior to this an entire bulk has been completed on the manuscripts – most of which not only set the tenor of his language but also in their own rights are historically important pieces.
If the poet and writer Rabindranath was an ardent advocate of 'illusionism' through his naturalistic explorations, a method which entered the Bengali imagination through exposure to Anglo-European Naturalistic/Realistic literature, the artist Rabindranath had set an entirely new agenda based on unconscious unfolding of the sensuous and the imaginary world. Without eschewing references and codified language, Rabindranath simply allowed the unconscious mechanics of the mind to exert its full power on him by avoiding all kinds of objectifying tendencies. Thus, being under the propitious shadow of one's spontaneous and performative self, Rabindranath recreated his world, one that was fraught with the tension between what is already there and what is not there.
Though he himself had once conjectured that, 'if by chance they [pictures] are entitled to claim recognition, it must be primarily for some rhythmic significance of form which is ultimate, and not for any interpretation of idea or representation of fact.' His works are less about their formal qualities (and have least to do with 'ideal form') than about the rash (rasa in Sanskrit) they are infused with, and in this his form certainly plays a vital role without conforming it to any external dictates.
Acquiring a psychosomatic dimension, through his process of art the archetypal was invoked. And we know from Rabindranath's own words that he had some form of notional understanding of what is often referred to as the archaeological remnants of the human consciousness linking us to our primitive ancestors. Conflating the archetypal with the experiential, or put another way, the imaginary with the subjective, and also choosing to use a language of expression that often verged on the ideographic, Rabindranath the artist rescued his art from the rigor mortis that afflicted the art of an entire section of Indian artists in the early part of the twentieth-century.
The Century Dictionary translates ideographic as '[r]epresenting ideas directly and not through medium of their names; applies specifically to that mode of writing which by means of symbols, figures, or hieroglyphics suggest the idea of an object without expressing its name.' This direct form of expressing ideas or translating experience is the primordial/originary space where we are able to locate Rabindranath.
With painting he could easily depart from what he himself once called 'the luxury of rash, and it is inscribed all over his pen sketches as well as water colour and pastel paintings on paper. Art is the province where we do not see the taste hierarchy getting the upper hand; instead, we encounter a non-hierarchical, rhizomic germination of subject matters which seem consistent with his admission that this luxury of rash results from 'the minute attention to what is only exclusively beautiful, and particularly noble.' His art was democratic in the sense that it sought out the extraordinary in the everyday realities. Another quote dwells on the cause of the abstracting tendencies that gripped the literary and artistic circle:
'What has been produced on our behalf, do they stem from our mind at all – or, is it the result of the carts-full of fertilizer that the English university has heaped on our true nature.'
This saying have us transported to a rather critical discursive ground – from where to re-assess his last phase of creativity, start a reckoning of the fact that the unconscious had lead Rabindranath to such unconventional ends. Once we compare the artist with the poet, it dawns that Rabindranath's espousal of Biswamanabmon – The Universal Mind, which may or may not make him beholden to the Hegelian concept of creative imagination 'of a great mind and a big heart', which conclusively aligns the poet with the European Enlightenment, while the artist seems a far cry from such idealist frame of mind. Through encounters with his art there emerge a personae incline to communionship in the most value-free manner as is often represented by the trope 'shahoj' – which is a psychic state that allows the unconscious to play its part. Shahoj, a concept which was most probably introduced by the Nath brahmacharees, is a state of the self that may be translated as 'natural' and 'neuter'. Instead of the phallic presence of intellect-driven consciousness, it transmutes one into a state of submission to the unfathomable power of the Unknown.
An autodidact as well as an outrider as an artist, Rabindranath simply assigned separate values and responsibilities to art and became a 'vampiristic threat' to national, rational as well as etiquette art. If rash (or rasa) is to be accounted for, his works tapped the most unexplored aspects – from the grotesque to the burlesque, from the absurd to the extra-sensuous, everything was now out in the open.
Let us put an end to this fragmentary note while trying to tease out meaning from the art of the poet who preferred not to attach much intellectual value to it, with a line borrowed from the Bolshevik poet of Russia Alexendar Block to indicate the emergence of the New Man who must take over '… not the ethical, political or humanist being but, in the words of Wagner, the creative being, the artistic person, who alone will be capable of living life in the epoch of storm and whirlwind into which mankind has unwittingly jettison itself.'
In order to be that person what one needs to revive is the primordial notion of human and self, a frame through which to reinvent one's persona while eyeing to close the gap between living and thinking. Du Buffet used to profess that 'art should go back to the roots of mental activity, where thought is close to its birth.' And this would be the (anti)ideal man ready to move away from idealism to lock his interest into feeling, thinking and living as they dawn on him/her in a disjointed flow and express them as they are – without showing any bias towards polish and pomp.
If we are to define Rabindranath as an artist with an axial proximity to his lived/thought/read world, the emergent intimaticist who betake oneself to the consideration of the entirety of life understands that appearances are secondary, and are always in a state of flux, liable to change every other minute before our mortal gaze.
- Beyond Borders, Rabindranath Tagore's Painting and the Visva-Bharati, a lecture by Amrit Sen.
- Rabindranath Tagore, A Centenary, Vol 1861-1961, Sahitya Akademy, Delhi, India.
- Anna Watkins, Art & Education, e-journal.
- Rabindra Shamogra, (complete works of Rabindranath), Vol 5, Aitijya Prakashani, Dhaka.
- Manaranjan Gupta, Rabindra-Chitrakala, Sahitya Sangsad, Kolkata.